More about the book
“Nature’s Year: Rewilding an Urban Garden”
by Gerry Maguire Thompson
A TV programme about the book and garden
Gerry talks about the book from the garden
The book also promotes deeper understanding and insight into the miraculous workings of nature in its incredible intricacy, answering questions such as: how is it that every three to seven years every tree over a wide area can agree to have a spectacularly abundant fruiting season? ....What’s the reason for sparrows living alongside humans for the past 11,000 years? ....And just why does birdsong sound so beautiful to us when to the birds it’s so often expressing hostility and aggression?
An interview on BBC Radio
Author Gerry Maguire Thompson talks about the book
What's the book about?
Nature’s Year: Rewilding an Urban Garden is the illustrated first-person account of the author’s day-to-day wildlife encounters in his urban garden over the period of a year, drawing readers into a rich world that is by turns fascinating, enchanting, entertaining, dramatic and astonishing.
An illustrated gift book
Interweaving diary entries and beautiful illustrations and told with a touch of humour, this book brings to life the charismatic myriad inhabitants of this extraordinarily prolific urban habitat, the plants, animals, birds and insects, from the big and bold to the minute and the secretive, in all their mysterious interconnectedness.
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Extracts from the book
“I warmly recommend you read this book and let yourself be carried away by the beauty of the small, anecdotal stories about everything that comes to live in a small city garden.”– Magnus Sylvén: Co-director, Global Rewilding Alliance
This is the story of our wildlife garden in the city, told over nature’s calendar year. The garden was established some years ago and steadily becomes more and more wild. Every day brings new insights, surprises and drama, as we get to know the wild creatures ever more intimately and learn how nature works in all its miraculous intricacy and wonder. The journey brings a great deal of joy and comfort in these often challenging times.
From this I hope you may, if you wish, learn about how to create a rich wildlife haven of your own, and in so doing bring great benefits to yourself, your local wildlife, your urban habitat and even the planet. A good part of it is just getting out of nature’s way and letting her do her important work. Thanks for joining me on this journey.
The sparrows are out in force today, with fine weather after a day or two of rain. I never tire of watching sparrows in the garden. They’re a large and growing flock who seem to never leave the garden. All their needs seem to be met here: food, protection, nest-sites, safe roosting – and lots of opportunities to bicker at one another.
I get immense joy from this connexion with all the inhabitants of our little wildlife haven, and from the intimate insights into their lives. Most days there isn’t anything rare or exotic to look at; much of it may seem mundane or commonplace, but when you become immersed in it over a period you see all kinds of subtle stuff going on. I hope this will come across in these daily observations.
This natural richness shows that we must be doing something right in my role of custodian and maintainer of the garden. There’s a satisfying sense that we’re moving at least this little patch and its surroundings in the right direction; we’re playing some small part in the necessary effort to reverse humankind’s habit of ecological destruction.
Looking out into the garden I see a sparrow-hawk crouching on the ground with a sparrow in its talons; it’s spreading out its wings out in masking posture to show it’s not about to share this meal with anyone. When it’s sure the sparrow is dead it flies off with it. Sorry, sparrows, but predators need to make a living too. These sparrow-hawks are stunning birds that occupy the top spot in the local food chain, and their presence indicates a healthy eco-system; I know that with the ever growing numbers in this garden the sparrows can stand the loses and still increase.
One of my favourite plants is Lesser Celandine, the classic harbinger of spring, in full blossom now. It’s a member of the buttercup family with vivid yellow glossy petals and heart shaped leaves.
Wordsworth loved Lesser Celandine so much that he wrote an ode to it. The plant is also known as Pilewort – you can guess what that’s helpful for. Perhaps Wordsworth had special reason to be grateful to the plant.
Late last night we took our dog out. In the garden she began to barking at something – it was a large hedgehog; she’d never seen one of these because they’re so very scarce. We watched the animal from a distance – excitedly. A hedgehog visiting your wildlife garden is something you endeavour to provide the right conditions for, but whether it happens is beyond your control, so this is special.
We brought the dog back indoors and stood watching the animal, spellbound; after a while it began to move. It stayed in the same spot, sniffing round, then found something and chomped on it. It wasn’t bothered by us; hedgehogs don’t have great eyesight. I noticed something small and white falling down in front of the hog; it found and ate it. The hedgehog had positioned itself underneath the mealworm feeder, filled during the day for the birds; every now and then a leftover worm would manage to climb up the side and drop down to the ground. This hedgehog knew what it was doing.
The birds didn’t get any mealworms after that. Hedgehogs are just too special.
Late yesterday evening we heard loud huffing, puffing and snorting in the garden, and saw that our big male hedgehog was on a date with a smaller hog, presumably female. As we watched we learned the correct answer to the age-old joke ‘How do hedgehogs make love? … the female can flatten down her prickles for the duration.
But how to tell the difference between male and female hedgehogs? The male has a penile sheath in the middle of his abdomen, looking rather like a belly-button, and the penis is typically retracted into this – unless he is lonely and (as the guide to hedgehogs puts it) ‘self-stimulating’. Did you know that male hedgehogs self-stimulate? And how do they do that? Carefully, one presumes.
In the garden the breeding season continues apace and the wildlife is showing great vitality. The second wave of baby sparrows are now fat fledgelings, fully feathered and flying well, and able to find their own food; but many still prefer to chase their mothers, demanding feeding and calling incessantly. These latter individuals are all males and their mums are completely ignoring these demands. Perhaps in sparrow circles they think of it as man-fledging.
The male blackbird started singing at 4.10 this morning: it’s beautiful and uplifting. I know this bird is probably only saying, “this is my territory so you’d better all piss off” but it’s doing it so beautifully; I never fail to feel joy listening to it, especially at dawn and again at dusk. Who knows, perhaps the bird feels joy too: the joy of telling others to f**k off? As indeed I do, sometimes.
Anthropomorphique, moi? Certainement.
It’s interesting to see how little the garden and the wildlife have been affected by the current heatwave. I’ve noticed over the years that this garden is naturally resilient to extremes of weather. The woodland-like surrounding hedge provides shelter from wind and shade from sun, and I’ve never seen any plant showing signs of heat stress in any of the considerable heat events we’ve had over the years. And we’ve never watered. Likewise, the deep rich leaf mould seems to be able to absorb endless soaking from the weeks of torrential downpour at other times of year, without any flooding or water lying. It’s testimony to how valuable a part natural ecosystems can play in handling increasing different extremes of climate; this garden is not bothered by any of it. The mature nature garden – like the rest of nature when unspoiled – has a kind of self-adjusting stasis of near-perfection.
I love the commonplace species like sparrows and blackbirds to bits, but this wild urban garden throws up something a bit special once in a while. Today it was an Emperor Dragonfly, Anex Imperatur: Britain’s bulkiest and most stunningly beautiful dragonfly. It spent time coasting round the garden in the morning sunlight, catching flying insects in the air around the flowering ivy. This magnificent creature is coloured apple green and sky blue with black markings, and is 70 millimetres in length. The sighting is particularly unexpected as we’re far from any of its usual larger scale watery habitats. Maybe it’s drawn here by the richness of flying prey, which it not only catches but also eats on the wing. A truly wonderful creature.
The garden birds are fully feathered and less shy now after their late summer moult when they stayed in cover a lot of the time. On this sunny day they’re all out in the garden feeding at once, but in different ways.
The whole sparrow tribe are fighting together for access to the seed feeder. The wood pigeon is below, hoovering up everything they knock down to the ground. The female blackbird is turning over leaf mould to find worms, while her mate is pecking at the fermenting windfall apples for its daily tipple of fruit alcohol. The squirrels are foraging all round the garden and carrying stuff off to their cache for winter. The wrens forage for invertebrates in the bark of the elder tree, while a pair of bluetits are finding insects on other shrubs.
Have been observing the ant colony in the garden. Ants have an array of extraordinary and highly effective ways of preventing and dealing with outbreaks of viral infections in their extremely close-knit social communities. They employ antibacterial tree resins in construction of their nests. They do social distancing as a matter of course, and limit contact between different ant work-groups such as workers/ foragers/ nurses. When an ant is ill with an infectious condition it will stay away from the nest. If an individual shows sign of illness at home they will spray it with formic acid; if it cannot be saved it will be killed and disinfected. Perhaps humans might learn something from this approach.
Winter solstice. It’s pouring with rain. I put the bird seed feeder in the porch so that the birds can source dry seed there. But now I see a woodmouse scurrying back and forth between the feeder and the woodpile where it lives, building up its larder for winter. I built the woodpile for hedgehogs but they haven’t occupied it; so now its being used in a different way, and meanwhile the hedgehogs have been attracted by other resources. It just goes to show that you can create wildlife opportunities, but you can’t tell who will take them up.
A big lesson for me through this challenging year, inspired by the examples I’ve seen all year among the wildlife in the garden, is the importance of adapting to changing circumstances. It’s all about living in the present and being flexible – as all wildlife critters must do their best to do.